Yellowstone is “The Granddaddy” of our National Parks, featuring 50% of the world’s geysers in this 2.2-million-acre space.
And, it spans three states: Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Its sheer size along with the literal coexistence you have with the wildlife all around it, puts it in a league of its own. However, with the last six years of the park seeing 3-4 million more visitors than the previous six years, Yellowstone can be challenging to maneuver through and check off everything you want to do and see on your wish list.
This article will give you guidance on how to do three perfect days in Yellowstone National Park. Ninety-five per cent of people who visit the park never get more than ½ mile away from their car, so I’ve included some hikes you can do as well to fully appreciate the wonder of Yellowstone.
As much as I love adventure travel, I do prefer to have a roof over my head and a comfortable bed at the end of the day when I visit national parks; and with the non-camping lodges and hotel accommodations options inside the park being extremely expensive, I decided to stay in West Yellowstone, which is about a five-minute drive from the park’s west entrance (One of five entrances into Yellowstone National Park). There are plenty of dining options, gas stations, museums and gift shops here. So, everything you need is accessible right from this location. And with the airport being in West Yellowstone, it is an ideal base if you’re not driving in from another state.
A rustic, historical and yet modern place to consider staying is the Elkhorn Cabins in West Yellowstone. Long before the creation of the National Park Service, Yellowstone Park was watched over and maintained by a division of the United States Army. They lived in the cabins, which are now completely renovated and feature Wi-Fi, large flat screen TVs, private bathrooms and charming electric fireplaces. But the bed headboards and nightstands are made of wood from the original cabins. The front desk staff at Elkhorn is very thoughtful and friendly and there’s always a delicious assortment of refreshments in the lobby for the guests.
Day 1: I recommend heading into the park early each morning to enjoy the sun coming up and the peace and calm before all the crowds and tour buses come. (At the entrance to the park they’ll give you a brochure/map you can use to navigate around. Once the crowds start coming in, a basic rule of thumb is to double the number of miles from location to location to estimate your driving time. For instance, 30 miles = about 60 minutes of driving time.) First up, drive over to Canyon Village and go to the Canyon Village Education Center to see, hear, and learn how the Yellowstone volcano, its geysers and hot springs, and geologic history shape the distribution and abundance of all life found here. Explore these ideas through interactive exhibits, animations, audio-visual productions, and real-time scientific data. Next, follow the signs and drive to the south rim upper and lower falls lookouts. You’re in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone area and the views are impressive. Afterwards, a short drive takes you over to the north rim where you can do an easy 2-mile roundtrip hike to Inspiration Point, which juts out from the rest of the canyon wall to offer incredible panoramic views up and down the canyon. It’s always best to hike in groups of 3 or more as noise can help to keep bears at bay. You can purchase bear spray at many locations throughout the park, it’s about $40 to purchase, but know that if you don’t use it, you can’t take it on an airplane when you leave. Alternatively, you can rent it at Canyon Village for about $10 per day. Bear attacks are extremely rare, they are just as afraid of us as we are of them, so the idea is not to startle them. If they hear noise in the distance, they will try to avoid the approaching threat. You can head back to Canyon Village for lunch.
Drive south now towards Lake Village. On the way, stop off and at the Mud Volcano area. There is a boardwalk (about .5 miles long) that takes you in and all around this fascinating area of muddy bubbly hot springs.
A relaxing and scenic way to end your first day in the park is by taking a cruise on Yellowstone Lake. The one-hour sailings leave from the Bridge Bay Marina, and costs about $20 per person. Advance reservations are recommended and you can do that here.
Day 2: Rise and shine, you’ve got a bold and exciting day in Yellowstone National Park ahead of you! Drive over to Mammoth Hot Springs first, an absolute must-see attraction, almost other worldly. Mammoth Hot Springs has two terrace boardwalks, the Upper and Lower (about 1.5 miles in total). 50 hot springs lie within the area, depositing about 2 tons of calcium carbonate or travertine limestone per day. Next, let’s drive towards Tower-Roosevelt area, go ahead and grab a map of the Tower area day hikes by stopping in at the Tower Ranger Station. After talking with the ranger about current trail conditions and bear activity in the area, go ahead and park up the road at the Roosevelt Lodge.
From here you can hike the 2.8-mile Lost Lake Loop Trail.
This trail has a bit of everything to see such as sagebrush hilltops, waterfowl, wildflowers and beautiful views of lost lake; in fact, what I really like about it is it has a backcountry feel to it without the need for a backcountry permit. Afterwards, grab lunch at the Roosevelt Lodge, a very rustic old west kind of place. Now, drive towards Canyon Village – you are in for a spectacular scenic road trip. (Because of its altitude, the road between tower falls and Canyon Village is closed between mid-October to late May.) You’ll be driving around 8,000-10,000 ft in altitude past Mount Washburn and Dunraven Pass, take your time and stop off at all the lookout points -the views are simply breathtaking. By the way, this area is actually the giant volcano cauldron of Yellowstone. You do know that Yellowstone National Park is an active super volcano, right? Make sure to plan your trip before it erupts and causes worldwide havoc, ha ha. Continue driving back towards West Yellowstone and end the day at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center . where you can experience these precious animals up close and personal.
Day3: Of course, no trip to Yellowstone is complete without a visit to the iconic and wonderous Old Faithful! If there’s any attraction you want to try to get to early before the crowds, this is the one. It erupts pretty much every 90 minutes; so, if you just missed it when you arrive, you can walk through the Old Faithful Inn right on site, considered the largest log structure in the world. Next, drive over to the West Thumb Geyser Basin, it’s one of my favorite places in the park, featuring an eye-catching collection of hot springs and bubbling pools with beautiful Lake Yellowstone as the backdrop. There’s about 1 mile of boardwalk to meander in and around and see it and short informational ranger talks about this area’s thermal activity all throughout the day. Afterwards, go grab some lunch at Grant Village Dining Room and take in the 25-minute movie about the massive 1988 Yellowstone fires (about 1.2 million acres burned) at the nearby visitor center. End your Yellowstone experience at the amazing Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot springs in the United States, and 3rd largest in the world. Its magnificent turquoise and blue and orange colors are a feast for the eyes. Instead of just walking the boardwalk in and around it, park at Fairy Falls and hike the 1 mile out and back trail up to a lookout point for a wonderful bird’s eye view of Grand Prismatic Springs and Midway Geyser Basin (much better for photos).
Yellowstone is really the epitome of “the great outdoors” and the park inspires awe in travelers from all around the world. I wish you a wonderful adventure to this one of a kind gem in our national park system. If you think you’ll be visiting more than one national park over a 12 month period, it makes sense to get an annual pass, which you can order here./
I’ll be organizing a group trip to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Tetons in the spring of 2021. Please let me know if you’ll be interested in joining us. And you just never know what might walk right by our vehicle while we’re there.